Is God’s goal for humanity communion or correctness? The way you answer that question will determine your understanding of atonement, orthodoxy, holiness, Biblical interpretation, and just about every other major issue within Christian thought. Does Jesus’ cross serves the purpose of imputing perfect correctness to imperfect people or creating peace and reconciliation between otherwise irreconcilable people? That is the distinction. For the purpose of this piece, I want to define correctness very specifically as a way of thinking about behavior and opinions in which there is one right answer and the goal is absolute uniformity. Righteousness is different from correctness; its absolute would be perfect love for God and neighbor which would not necessarily result in identical decisions being made in the same circumstances but a perfect disposition for making these decisions. I believe that a certain threshold of correctness is important for the sake of establishing communion between God’s people, but if correctness means chasing after an elusive goal of absolute ideological conformity, then it is a source of schism in the body of Christ and as such a heretical pursuit.
Let me state the widespread idea that I’m against whether or not this is an accurate representation of any one particular theologian’s view or simply the millions of “straw men” who are actually real people that really do believe something like this. I’m against the idea that God sent Jesus to die on the cross primarily to fulfill His infinite standards for perfection on behalf of creatures He hates for their imperfection, and only incidentally to restore communion with some of His creatures. I’m not a universalist, but I do believe God wants us all and grieves (in some way appropriate to His mysterious and sovereign nature) about losing anyone including Satan. God is an unreasonably merciful Father who loses His dignity chasing around His prodigals; He also zealously loves those who belong to them and rages against anything that hurts them or damages the order in which they are safe. But I don’t think He has an abstract standard of perfect correctness that supersedes His goal of communion with humanity.
I realize I haven’t read everything that I need to read to give an exhaustive account of all the theological tributaries that have flowed into the popular evangelical misconceptions of God that predominate our discourse today. But based on what I have read, I’m going to blame the “doctrine of correctness” on a legitimate but infamously misinterpreted analogy made by Anselm that has been hackneyed and caricatured to death through a millennium of passing it down. In his opus Cur Deus Homo, Anselm set out to explain why Jesus needed to be both man and God. In Anselm’s medieval feudal context, the king’s honor was the glue that held the whole feudal society together. If people could get away with dishonoring the king, then all of the subordinate relationships would fall like a house of cards and the society would degenerate into chaos. Anselm felt this was analogous to humanity’s relationship with God, with which I agree. In a society where everyone honors the Father who sees every creature as His beloved child, people will take care of each other and enjoy peace as a result of their right relationship with God. When we lack honor for God, we treat each other with contempt as a result. The corollary is also true: when we denigrate other people (like poor people we don’t know by coming up with myths that blame them for their poverty to comfort us in our complacency), then we are dishonoring God.
So the analogy between a king in feudal society and God is appropriate, but let me share how things get dicey. Anselm says that because God is infinite, the offense against him for even the most minor of sins is infinite which means that only the punitive death of an infinite being (divine) representing the guilty party (human) could satisfy the dishonor shown to God. Hence Jesus had to be both God and man. All of this talk of infinite offense on the part of God is completely extra-Biblical as far as I know. The curious thing is the justification Anselm gives for this cosmic need of infinite sacrifice. He uses the verb convenit (“It is fitting”) to explain why Jesus’ sacrifice was necessary. He doesn’t say whether God needs to be satisfied by His Son’s blood for His dishonor or we need God the Son to prove to us that God the Father’s honor has been restored so that we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16). To Anselm, it is simply “fitting.” Over the last 900 years of the theological game of telephone from Anselm to John Calvin to the Puritans to the Romans Roaders of today, God has become the one who needs Jesus’ cross; I say in contrast that we are the ones who need the cross since our utterly self-sufficient God needs nothing and can dishonor Himself kenotically with ridiculous mercy all that He wants to.
Here are the consequences of this difference. When you say that God’s honor is infinitely offended by the most minor of sins and that becomes the cosmic problem of your universe, it impacts how you define everything else theologically. God’s holiness comes to mean His pickiness about our imperfection rather than God’s willingness to “cause his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). God’s righteousness becomes God’s demand for perfect correctness that is canceled out by the cross, rather than God’s willingness to bear our sins through His Son on the cross (Romans 3:25) and pay for our mistakes unilaterally in order to “reconcile the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God’s justice becomes the damnation that we deserve and get rescued from rather than the moment for which those who are oppressed and cheated and slandered have longed (Revelation 6:10) all of their lives: when “everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). I’ll never forget a breakfast I had with a Southern Baptist pastor where I was talking about why Christians should fight for justice and he said, “Justice? I don’t want justice; you know where we would all go if God were just!” This helped me understand why the Romans Road is more attractive to the privileged than the oppressed. When you haven’t ever been treated unjustly, there’s no reason to want justice.
So the result of the theological game of telephone from Anselm through many intermediaries to today’s Romans Roaders is that God is caricatured as an infinitely scrutinizing and merciless Critic (rather than an infinitely understanding Father who will hold us accountable for everything we do but who judges so perfectly that He sees every last mitigating circumstance and sliver of good intentions in every sin that He judges). The Romans Roaders make justice into something that ironically lacks the infinite nuance that perfect judgment requires. Judgment (κρίνει) instead of being synonymous with discernment (διακρίνει) becomes a clumsy binary opposite of the mercy that cancels it out since God is only allowed two options (by the people who “defend” His freedom). Thus it becomes impossible to imagine that the greatest justice can be accomplished in a context of mercy, a “community called atonement,” to use the title of Scot McKnight’s excellent book. This view of justice results in a nihilistic contempt for ethics since the difference between murder and infinite perfection is not much greater than the difference between saying ” !@#$%^&*!” and infinite perfection, so if you’re going to cuss somebody out, you might as well kill them too, because it doesn’t make any difference to God since His criterion is your acceptable acceptance of Jesus’ blood.
If Jesus’ blood is a response to God’s demand for infinite blood rather than our need for an assurance of peace with God, that indicates that what God most wants is perfect correctness whether it’s through our perfect adherence to His infinitely demanding rules (which is impossible) or through our acceptance of Christ in the correct way (which I suppose would be Romans 10:9-10), not for the sake of our liberation from slavery to sin (Romans 6:6), but simply because He demands correctness (which seems to establish His “sovereignty” better than if He were concerned with our benefit). And by the way, it’s not good enough for us to accept Christ if we have the “wrong Jesus” in our heads when we do it because then we haven’t accepted Christ correctly. It’s hard to know which Jesus is the correct Jesus, but if the Jesus we believe in is attractive and reassuring to us, then we’ve probably invented Him (following the modernist/Kantian logic of defining “objectivity” as the proven lack of personal benefit). So the safest bet is to pick a mean, distasteful Jesus from Revelation whose mouth-sword isn’t the truth of His words but something that generates enough blood and gore to make Armaggedon a sufficiently R-rated experience, rather than the gentle hippie in Matthew who talked about turning the other cheek and the blessedness of being meek.
If God’s ultimate goal is infinite correctness, then orthodoxy does not refer to a range of possible interpretations of scripture. There can only be one correct way of reading each verse in the Bible, which are each perfectly self-evident since God could not demand correctness if He did not give us a word that is “very near to us” (Deuteronomy 30:14) and completely accessible to anybody with a sixth grade-level of education since 12 is the “age of accountability” (another completely extra-Biblical concept). In this view of orthodoxy, heretics are people who think there isn’t only one self-evident interpretation of scripture and try to shroud their disbelief by using that infinitely dangerous and dishonest word “mystery.” The task of the theologian under this orthodoxy is to find the one correct way of interpreting the Bible and write an exhaustive systematic theology that dispels all the so-called “mystery” once and for all so that every Christian will be able to read their Bibles correctly and thus ensure that they have indeed accepted Christ into their hearts correctly so that God will accept their acceptable acceptance (which somehow isn’t justification by works even though people have to work very hard to convince themselves that they have the fruits of regeneration).
But what if salvation is better described not as God’s imputed correctness which satisfies His demand for infinite perfection, but instead our deliverance from the infinite fright that causes us to make an awesome God awful and mask our terror with imprisoning Pharisaic self-justification? What if justification by faith refers to our capacity to trust that something as seemingly weak and undignified as mercy could be what the King of the universe uses to deliver us from the distancing power play of self-justifying sacrifice so that we can be absorbed into the radical intimacy of a body that was crucified in order to conform us to the kenotic mercy of our savior that is itself the righteousness of God (Romans 3:25 & 2 Corinthians 5:16-21) and the only “correctness” that can create communion? What if the pursuit of a correctness that has been defined as something that is diametrically opposed to mercy causes us to be “children of hell” (Matthew 23:15), like the Pharisees that Jesus condemned, who “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” which “they themselves will not enter” (v. 13)? Consider the following three passages that describe election and justification by faith, two concepts that are central to evangelical theology. What is the common telos that they share?
This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus…Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. [Romans 3:22-24, 27]
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9]
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. [1 Corinthians 1:27-29]
When people are trying to be perfectly correct in terms of unimpeachable opinion and conduct rather than pursuing the perfect “righteousness of the kingdom of God” that is Jesus’ heart, they boast; they puff up with spiritual pride (1 Corinthians 8:1), and any kind of authentic community between them and other people becomes impossible, because they will argue relentlessly over any disagreement until the other person is cowed into submission or leaves. It is true that we need Christ’s blood to justify us before God, but it’s not because God demands perfectly correct opinions and conduct, which would leave us trapped in our condition since Christ’s imputed correctness wouldn’t save us from the need to accept Him as Lord and savior correctly. The reason we need Christ’s blood to justify us before God is so that we can be liberated us from the hell-bound pursuit of the wrong kind of correctness and forced into a humility that makes the righteousness of mercy and authentic community possible, a recognition of our utter dependence on God’s sovereign mercy that renders unnecessary Paul’s rhetorical question to the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
Of course in America, the land of self-reliance, the ethos in the air makes us want to earn our salvation rather than receive it as a gift. So we grasp for a form of works-righteousness that we can disguise as justifying “faith”: doctrinal correctness — believing the right things about the right Jesus so that we can be assured that our acceptance of Christ is acceptable to God. As long as perfect doctrinal correctness is the all-consuming goal of Christian discipleship, communion between Christians will remain impossible except between those who believe that they are both perfectly correct since they believe exactly the same things and that they are not condoning incorrectness. Over time, the church splits and schisms further and further as the demands for perfect correctness increase in their hyperbolic approach to infinity and fewer deviations from a rigid uniformity are acceptable. The pursuit of perfect correctness will settle ultimately for nothing less than absolute ideological conformity.
It’s true that the “God demands correctness” story draws a much greater following among the American middle-class than the “God desires communion” story, but do the members of these churches really experience the authentic community that Jesus died to make possible? Perhaps they do in hushed corners, in certain small groups that are more open to “questions” than others. Maybe each of these megachurches has a group of cynics who go to a bar together and bemoan the teachings of the pastor they will never have the courage to leave since they think their God demands infinite correctness and they’re willing to rebel only so much. It grieves me so much that the American ethos which loves the pride of sacrifice more than the humility of mercy causes people to desire a God who is “a hard man who reaps where he does not sow” (Matthew 25:24) like the third servant in the parable of the talents who was so afraid of a God he couldn’t believe to be a generous and loving Father that he buried all of his questions and dreams in the ground.
But I think there’s a better story. The reason God “made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21) was so that we could display His perfect righteousness through our reconciliation and communion to God and each other. Jesus’ final prayer to His Father in John 17 captures the purpose of His work on the cross: “that they may be one as we are one” (v. 22). It is because of Jesus’ cross that we come to be branches brought together in communion on the same vine (John 15:5), grafted onto the tree (Romans 11:17) of the people who owe their entire existence to God’s mercy (Deuteronomy 32:21). Jesus’ “purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of [Jews and Gentiles], thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15-16). Notice how Paul says that the cross puts to death our hostility. We are the ones who need the blood of Christ to rescue us from our hatred of God and each other. Our pursuit of correctness is a major catalyst for the spiritual pride and competitiveness that creates this hatred.
The orthodoxy that we seek in Christian teaching is for the sake of the merciful righteousness that makes communion, not the correctness that is opposed to mercy. The reason Paul tells Timothy to oppose false teachers is not merely because they are incorrect, but because they “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work” (1 Timothy 1:4). All of Paul’s polemics in Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Colossians targeted those who were creating scandal and division in the church, often by seeking to supersede the gospel of God’s mercy with a form of more sacrificially taxing correctness(which has “an appearance of wisdom, with its self-imposed worship, its false humility and its harsh treatment of the body,” Colossians 2:23). The heresies of the ancient church were heresies because they created schism by either emphasizing one aspect of the complex amalgam of Christian theology to the exclusion of all others (Marcionism, Arianism, Nestorianism) or creating an elitism of correctness that would destroy Christian unity (Gnosticism, Pelagianism). Yes, they were incorrect, but the boundaries of orthodoxy are not set by a completely impossible uniform correctness but rather the range of Biblical interpretation within which a unified body of Christ can be maintained (and moreover ortho-doxy is not really “right-opinion” anyway but “right-worship” so it is most truly the set of beliefs that emerge from the regular practice of eucharistic community which are confirmed by the God-breathed truth we are given to narrate our encounter with the sacred mysteries).
This is not to say that orthodoxy is reducible to majority rule, which is how false orthodoxies like the Romans Road get created. The vast majority of Christians will never be able to understand the boundaries of belief that allow for the body of Christ to remain unified; thus they will cling to a literal, self-evident interpretation of the Bible. This is not to denigrate the simple-minded, for “the statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). God can take us as deep into His infinity as we are able to dive; the problem is when we understand His infinity to be a conceptually shallow parsimonious perfectionism instead of being a mystery of wonder and beauty whose light can never be owned by our darkness (John 1:5). The salvation we receive is just as rich in the ankle-deep waters of the beach as at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The deep-divers should not be contemptuous of the ankle-waders, but the ankle-waders likewise should not be allowed to tyrannize the deep-divers as they have done in our mostly beneficial democratized culture which confuses populism for conservatism.
We all need the mercy that God has established through the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. The more that we allow this mercy to reign over us, the more deeply we will be able to enter into communion with God and each other. The Hebrew word for mercy, hesed, does not mean “pardon” so much as it signifies the kind of love you have in a tight-knit family. When God says in Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifice,” He is saying He will do whatever it takes for us to accept Him as our loving Father (communion) instead of keeping Him at a distance with our grandiose gestures of piety (correctness). I have been turning to Hebrews more and more for the most beautiful explanations of why Jesus died for us: “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:10-11). The pioneer of our salvation suffered to make us one family since God desires most deeply for us to be in perfect communion just as the Father, Son, and Spirit are.